A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How does the Queen answer the phone?

October 30, 2012

Dear Straight Dope:

A friend and I once tried to figure out how Queen Elizabeth II answers her phone. Now, obviously, someone else answers it first and they patch the caller through to Her Majesty if appropriate. But! She has to announce her presence once she picks up, no? She can't just lift the receiver to her ear and remain silent. So what does she say?

SDSTAFF Elendil’s Heir replies:

You’d hardly expect her to say “This is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of my other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith speaking” every time she picks up, would you? The poor woman would never get anything done.

Instead, as you might expect, the Queen (now celebrating her 60th year on the British throne) answers the telephone in different ways at different times. You’re right that she typically has calls put through, and knows to whom she’ll be speaking beforehand.

Or thinks she does, at least. In October 1995, Montreal comedian and radio personality Pierre Brassard managed to get past the royal switchboard by pretending to be then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. When the Queen came on the line, she simply said, “Hi, Prime Minister!” After beginning the conversation in English, Brassard asked if they might speak in French. The Queen immediately agreed (“Oui, bon”), and spoke in “impeccable” French for several more minutes about an upcoming referendum on Quebec independence. Although her courtiers were not amused, when she spoke to the actual – and very apologetic – Chrétien a few days later, she joked, "I thought your voice sounded slightly different, but I thought it might just have been because you were drunk."

Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine, tells me that, at most other times, “When the Queen answers her phone she says 'Yes' to the caller, who will be a member of the Royal Household or a telephonist wanting to put through a member of her family or a friend.”

In 1958, the Queen made the first British long-distance telephone call without the assistance of an operator. She began her call to Edinburgh by saying, "This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good afternoon, my Lord Provost."

A bit formal, but appropriate for the occasion. Still, it must be said that the Royal Family has had some fun with phones over the years.

King George V, Elizabeth II’s grandfather, and his younger sister Princess Victoria often spoke by telephone. She once began the conversation with “Hello, you old fool,” only to be interrupted by the operator: “Beg pardon, Your Royal Highness; His Majesty is not yet on the line.”

Many years later, “When the Queen placed a call to her mother,” biographer Sally Bedell Smith writes, “the Palace operator said to her mother, ‘Good morning, Your Majesty, Her Majesty is on the line for Your Majesty,’ which became a standing joke among friends and courtiers.”

And in 2007, when the Queen asked for their help in setting up voicemail on her cellphone, Prince William and Prince Harry prankishly recorded, “Wassup! This is Liz. Sorry I’m away from the throne. For a hotline to Philip, press one. For Charles, press two. And for the corgis, press three.” Her Majesty is said to have been a good sport when she learned what the young royals had done. (“Prince Albert in a can” jokes probably wouldn’t have gone over quite so well).

The British monarch does have what historian Robert Lacey calls a “dry and slightly mordant sense of humor,” and has in recent years developed a stock line for whenever the cellphone of a visitor goes off: "You'd better answer that. It might be someone important."

Ouch. My advice is, next time you’re invited to Buck House for tea and crumpets, mute your phone. Or better yet, just leave it at home.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Brassard, Pierre. Email, September 7, 2012.

Clark, Stanley. Palace Diary. E.P. Dutton & Co., 1958.

Hardman, Robert. A Year with the Queen. Touchstone, 2007.

Lacey, Robert. Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Lacey, Robert. Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II. Free Press, 2002.

Little, Joe. Email, April 23, 2012.

Marr, Andrew. The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Holt & Co., 2012.

Pimlott, Ben. The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Smith, Sally Bedell. Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. Random House, 2012.

“Princes William And Harry Pull Phone Joke On Queen Elizabeth,” Exposay, March 5, 2007, http://www.exposay.com/princes-william-and-harry-pull-phone-joke-on-queen-elizabeth/v/9008/ (accessed September 26, 2012).

“50th anniversary of historic call,” BBC News, December 5, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7766147.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

My thanks to Northern Piper for his assistance with M. Brassard.

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